A Tale of Two Nations and A Call to Action

February 3, 2013

A Tale of Two Nations:  A Mind-Numbing and Frightening Picture
And a Call to Action for High-Quality Childhood Education.

There are many concerns being voiced today about our future and how it is being threatened.  A column by George Will in this Sunday’s newspaper, for example, spoke about the threat of President Obama’s ignoring “the encroached limits imposed on the nation by his policies that are funded by debt that will burden future generations.”  And yes, we must deal with the issue of our debt.

But that is not the overriding issue that will most determine the future of our nation.  That issue is whether we will come to grips with the totally inadequate preparation and readiness of about 30% of our nation’s young people to compete in the world that awaits them based on their acquired abilities and confidence.

I have worked to advance the education of youth for almost three decades, almost from the first day that the report “A Nation at Risk” was issued.  That report called out our failure to provide the right education for our youth in the world that was emerging.  The risk today is far greater.

We all agree that the future is our youth.  We know that the historic social and economic strength of our nation relative to the rest of the world was founded on our having the best and broadest education for our youth.

Today, it is not news that we have fallen behind other nations.  Every international measure of academic performance demonstrates this, whether it be in reading, math or science.  At best, we are in the middle of the pack compared to other nations; on most measures, we are toward the bottom.

But the most shocking news – one that really has not been digested let alone acted on – is the enormous gap in student performance based on race and social and economic status.

Even having studied this subject for years, I had no idea of the magnitude of these gaps and how the current state of education, wealth accumulation, income, and social acceptance indicates to any objective observer that there is little likelihood of narrowing this gap.  Indeed, it may even get worse – unless we act very differently.

I recently finished reading one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time:  “The Measure Of A Nation:  How To Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing,” by Howard Steven Friedman.  Friedman analyzes the condition of the United States versus 14 other developed nations on several indicators, including health, education, safety and social mobility.  The position of the United States on each of these measures is, at best, in the middle and, more often, close to or at the bottom.  For example:

·      Life expectancy for males and females in the United States is lower than any comparable nation, while infant and maternal mortality are the highest.
·      The U.S. homicide rate is more than two times the closest competitor; our incarceration rate is four times higher than the closest.
·      And the depressing beat goes on.

However, it is our education preparedness, or more correctly the lack of it, and the impact of this that is most concerning.

Which brings me to the title of this paper:  “A Tale of Two Nations.”

As I said, we are all aware of the mediocre overall performance of U.S. students on international performance tests compared to other countries.

What matters more – and what explains our mediocre position is the gigantic gap between students resulting from wealth and social inequalities.  Take notice of these facts:

·      The average PISA* reading score in the U.S. for higher income schools – that is for schools in which fewer than 10% of students receive a free or reduced price lunch – exceeds that of every other comparative country.
·      The average PISA reading score for lower income American schools – that is in which more than three quarters of students receive a free or reduced price lunch – is far lower than every other comparative country.
·      On the national assessment of educational progress (NAEP), African American and Hispanic 12th graders scored about the same as Caucasian American 8th graders. 
·      The difference in wealth and income which underlies both of these educational conditions and is, going forward, a result of them, is simply devastating. 
·      For example – African Americans and Hispanics have only about 10% and 12% of the wealth of Caucasians, respectively. 
·      The median earnings of Caucasians are nearly 50% higher than those of African Americans and about 30% higher than Hispanics.**

It goes well beyond the scope of this paper to trace the many negative consequences of poor education preparedness.  Dramatically higher rates of incarceration and significantly shorter life spans are among them.

It comes as no surprise that the author concludes that socio-economic class and race have a far greater influence on educational preparedness and social mobility in our nation than in the other countries he studied.

*Program for International Student Assessment
**Measure of a Nation:  How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost our Global Standing,” pp. 79, 85, 214-216.
Improving the educational preparedness and outcomes for all of our youth, with particular focus on youth from poor socio-economic and minority racial backgrounds, is, as we all know, a generational and multi-dimensioned task.  Better teachers, longer school days -- all these have a role to play.

But there is one area where there is no doubt and, for me, it is the most easily implemented, both in knowing what to do and the cost being so incredibly justified.  I refer to early childhood education. 

We know that children with quality pre-school education are far more prepared to enter kindergarten proficiently (results in the Greater Cincinnati area show an improvement of over 30%).  We know that children who enter kindergarten prepared to learn are twice as likely to be able to read proficiently by grade three.  And we know that reading proficiently by grade three has a dramatic effect on completing high school successfully (i.e., 80% vs. 43%) -- failure to read proficiently by grade three makes the average student four times more likely to drop out of school relative to those students reading proficiently.  Students who are living in poverty are 13 times more likely to drop out than students who are reading proficiently.

I rest my case.

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